Audits of Annual Reviews 2007 to 2017 – children, systems and practice

19 September 2017

The Guardian’s Office has been auditing the Annual Reviews of children in care for 10 years now.  We do this to advocate for the children, to see how well the Reviews work and to identify broader systemic issues.

Annual reviews are an important means of monitoring the quality of services provided and the outcomes being achieved for children in care. They are intended to be more than an administrative process.  A good annual review focuses on the quality of the child’s care arrangements as a whole

Although required in legislation, only 63 percent were conducted in 2015-16. The number of Annual Reviews for 2016-17 will be available shortly. Based on 10 years of observations and data we can say:

  • Where Annual Reviews are conducted, the quality is very variable. Deficits in the representation of children’s views, the preparation by social workers and the presence of non-Departmental staff lead to inadequate consideration of the child’s circumstances and planning for their needs.
  • Up to 80 percent of children were assessed to be in a long-term, stable and appropriate placement.
  • Numbers of children are not allocated a social worker and, where a worker is allocated, other circumstances prevent the provision of a quality service to children.
  • The cultural needs of many Aboriginal children are not being adequately supported.
  • Significant numbers of children remain in unsuitable placements.
  • Contact between siblings separated in placement is not always facilitated.
  • Life Story Books are implemented for about half of the children.
  • The proportion of children with IEPs has not progressed beyond 80 percent and may be declining.
  • Of the children who are able to comprehend it, many do not receive information about their rights and the proportion who do appears to be declining.

For the background to this summary, you can download the report Audits of Annual Reviews 2007- 2017- children, systems and practice.

Addressing the emergency in emergency care

12 September, 2017

Nyland care environment graphicIn emergency care (sometimes referred to as commercial care or, previously in the media, ‘kids in motels’) children are housed in temporary accommodation (such as houses and units) by rotating shifts of workers with minimal specialist training employed by commercial providers.

These arrangements are very unsuitable for children in out of home care.  They do not support the psychological needs and social development of young, vulnerable and often traumatised children. The circumstances also place them at greater risk of abuse.  The Office has observed, and received reports from other sources, of ongoing problems in the quality of care provided for children in emergency care placements.

When the Guardian’s Office started monitoring the circumstances of these children in 2005 they numbered 10 and this grew to a peak of 217 in October 2016.

In 2016-17, based on weekly reports received by the Guardian’s Office:

  • the average number of children per night in emergency care was 190
  • the average length of stay was 178 days
  • about one third of children were 9 years old or younger.

Reviewing emergency care, Commissioner Nyland said ‘Reliance on emergency care by commercial carers should cease in all but genuine emergency circumstances’.

The Government accepted that recommendation and subsequently worked to cease commercial care as a priority.  It has attempted to do this by rapidly expanding the number of residential care placements and transferring some existing commercial care environments into Government management.  At the same time, the number of children coming into care has increased as the prevention and early intervention strategies designed to support families and children to safely stay together have not yet started to have effect.

Numbers of children and length of stay in emergency care in 2017

graph showing trens in emergency care in 2017

A focus on reducing the number of children alone can be problematic.  As this graph shows, while numbers of children in emergency care have been reduced, the average length of stay of those remaining has become longer.  Further, as the Guardian has commented,

… finding a suitable alternative placement involves much more than just finding a bed. A good placement has to consider not just what is best for the child or young person but what is in the interests of residents who already live in that placement… [The Office has seen] a number of placement changes  that were hastily planned and executed, poorly matched and did not involve the input of the children.

For detail about the full range of Government responses to the problems in emergency care see our March 2017 post A place to call home for children in state care – emergency care


Who asked for advocacy in 2016-17 and what were the issues?

picture of hands putting together jigsaw pieces1 August 2017

The Guardian’s Office received 292 requests for intervention in the 12 months to 30 June, 2017. Of those, the Office found that 57 were out of the Guardian’s mandate.[1] The remaining 235 in-mandate enquiries represented 321 individual children.[2]  Of the 235 inquiries:

  • 137 were requests for advocacy
  • 43 were consultations about action that could be taken regarding children’s circumstances
  • 35  were complaints that were re-directed
  • 20 were categorised as ‘other’ and included for information only

Some children presenting for advocacy had more than one issue.  The main issues were broadly consistent with those of previous years. They were:


Stable and secure placement




Contact with significant others


Participation in decision making


Appropriate care


Access to health and disability services




Understanding their circumstances


Nurturing environment


Relationship with their case worker




The major trends are:

  • In-mandate enquiries increased from 145 in 2015-16 to 235 in 2016-17.  This increase (62%) is significantly higher than the increase in numbers of children and young people in state care and detention over the same period.
  • Young people self-referred in the same proportion as the two previous years but the number increased from 41 in 2015-16 to 71 in 2016-17.
  • Enquiries about children and young people in the non home-based care arrangements, (residential care, emergency care and the Adelaide Youth Training Centre) accounted for 53% of the total enquiries.  this was greatly out of proportion to their number in the population in state care and detention.

[1] The Guardian’s mandate is limited to young people in state care and in youth justice detention in South Australia.  Out-of-mandate enquirers were referred, where possible, to appropriate sources of assistance.

2 Some enquiries involve numbers of children.


Penny Wright – Guardian


25 July 2017

It is a great privilege to be entrusted to the position of Guardian for Children and Young People, an independent statutory office dedicated to promoting the best interests, and safeguarding the voices and needs, of the young South Australians who live in out-of-home-care.


I am under no illusions. This is a tough role – and a crucial one. As the mother of young adults, I’ve seen the good times and the challenges they’ve experienced as they’ve grown up in this new century. It is not an easy time to be young.

I want those children and young people for whom my office advocates to have the same things I wanted for my own children: to be cared for, kept safe, and have the opportunity to find their own unique strengths and talents. I want them to grow up to be secure in themselves and proud of who they are. 

I originally trained and worked as a lawyer. Since then I have had a broad and varied career, including work on tribunals, university teaching, mediation and a term as a South Australian senator for four years. I have also campaigned for law reform and volunteered in community organisations and schools.  My last (very enjoyable) volunteering gig, before starting this job, was a five week Introduction to Poetry course with year six and sevens at my local primary school!

I have been drawn to work which promotes strong communities where  no-one is left behind.  These days we call this ‘social inclusion’. For me, this springs from my own personal conviction that every human being is inherently valuable and equal, no matter their circumstances.

I have also had a longstanding interest in criminal justice. Since my university days I have been fascinated by the purpose of prisons and punishment in our society and possibilities for ‘second chances’. Crime prevention through ‘justice reinvestment’ – investing in communities rather than building more prisons – was a major focus of my Senate work. I am very pleased, then, that my additional responsibilities as ’Training Centre Visitor‘ will include overseeing the rights and welfare of young people detained in youth training centres.

So here I am. And I am fortunate to have joined a skilled, dedicated and compassionate staff team. From day one, they have been very clear about the work of our office: ’It’s all about the kids‘.

Every day we must remember that no child asks to end up in a situation where they need to live away from their birth family. As a society, we must only intervene in their lives to ensure their futures will be better than their pasts, so that that they will be safe, respected and receive the support and care they need to be able to thrive.

In the best of worlds, a person’s background should not dictate their destiny. It is the hallmark of a fair and compassionate society to strive to ensure that every child has the chance to live a healthy life and achieve their full potential.

A fair and compassionate society is good for all of us.

Whatever role you play in the lives of children in care, I look forward to meeting you and working with you to get the best outcomes.

The coordination and collaboration survey – DCP and DECD staff perceptions

18 July 2017

We dig into the data and comments from our June 2017 Coordination and Collaboration Survey,to see how staff in Department of Education and Child Development (DECD) schools and Department for Child Protection (DCP) workers view the prevalence of coordination and collaboration in their relationship. (1)

 C and C occurs…nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalways
DECD staff2323505022
DCP staff094943047

When asked about how things had changed in the previous six months, perceptions were quite closer, biasing slightly toward the negative.

 C and C is…much worseworsethe samebettermuch better
%%%%% n
DECD staff10156010520
DCP staff7206310041

The comments mostly reflected the statistics and included the following:

Communication between DCP and education has reduced since the separation; there appears to be less support from DECD as previously; [Guardianship] children may have legislative rights to IEP’s however it is more of a tick box with some schools.  DECD regionals need to come along to more… (DCP worker)

One of my observations regarding significant improvements in communication about and services to vulnerable families in my region (Whyalla) is that it has been driven by the Manager of the local DCP office. She has done this in a number of ways: firstly, connecting to the community and engaging in community development activities (she knows her community, engages well with local government and non-government services and actions the philosophy of ‘child protection is everybody’s business’ through this engagement); secondly, she is solution focused and open to innovative practice (she takes the time to explore options); thirdly, she has made a commitment to work-force development (there has been a noticeable increase not only in DCP staff skills but also their ability to engage with clients and other stakeholders). (DECD staff)

As a school counsellor I am frequently involved in reporting child protection matters and supporting children and families with child protection issues. Our school has recently been ‘given’ a part- time Child Protection and Well-being Consultant. She comes to our school once a fortnight, for a day. She is very helpful and knowledgeable. However, I am concerned that the DCP is devolving too much responsibility on these (overworked) consultants. We are finding that some of our cases are closing and that we can also not refer children to Targeted Intervention Services anymore. We think that this is happening because the department is putting too much responsibility on the consultants. (DECD staff)

You can also download the Coordination and Collaboration Survey June 2017 – unfiltered results

(1) Sample numbers are small so data should be taken as broadly indicative only.

For abuse to occur, a child’s voice must be silenced

11 July 2017

For abuse of a child to occur, the first necessary condition is that the child remain silent, that their voice not be heard.  This silence may be engineered by the abuser, using their status, fear or shame. It may be engineered by institutions that are passive in protecting children or complicit in covering it up or by adults and peers who are not alert to the signs or do not know how to respond.

A just-released Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) Practice Paper Protection through participation – Involving children in child-safe organisations is a practical guide to how to talk with children about their safety and feelings of safety.  The paper is itself based on the Australian Catholic University’s research into how children understand and experience safety in institutions conducted last year for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

The paper is an excellent resource suitable both for organisations developing their systems and for individual concerned adults.  It combines general discussion with some specific and practical advice and tools.  It tells us:

  • Children want to be in the know. They want to understand if there are risks or troubling events.  Adults sometimes minimise this information thinking they are protecting the child but, in the words of one young person, ‘They think they should hide that stuff from kids to keep them safe but you feel more scared if you don’t know what’s happening.’
  • Children want to be asked for their views and involved in solutions.  Sometimes group discussions are appropriate but in some situations, where the level of trust is not high or there is likely be shame or embarrassment, anonymous reporting via suggestion boxes or surveys may be a way to start the conversation.  Involving children in decisions about a wide range of issues that affect them is good practice and should be normal in institutions.  It builds confidence in children for when more challenging matters arise for them.
  • Adults need to be skilled and calm.  They need to be informed about the real risks faced by children, the possible signs of abuse and to know how to approach a child or how to respond if approached.  Responses that adults may have heard and learned in their own childhood like ‘just grow up’, ‘walk away’ or  ‘it’s not a big deal’  can close down approaches by children and end conversations about abuse.  Adults must be aware of their own emotional triggers and set them aside to explore a child’s disclosures calmly and reasonably.
  • Adults need to be available.  Children will raise issues more readily with people with whom they have a meaningful relationship and this takes time to build.  Opportunities for discussion can occur at unpredictable times, like doing the dishes or driving somewhere in the car, and the adults who are physically and emotionally present are key to hearing a child’s concerns.
  • Recognise and use the power of peers. The paper says it most succinctly:

‘Young people are more likely to listen to peers and those people who have successfully protected themselves or dealt with situations if they arose. Working in partnership with young people to run workshops, teach classes or initiate conversations were all seen as helpful.’

Coordination and collaboration survey June 2017 – results

4 July 2017

Our thanks to the 384 people from all corners of the child protection system who responded to the Coordination and Collaboration Survey June 2017.

Respondents were asked to record their perceptions of a range of important relationships as they experienced them in June 2017 and the extent of change they had noticed since December 2016.  Nearly 150 respondents also left comments.

The unfiltered results can be downloaded from the link at the foot of this page.

We look here at six of the main areas identified by the Nyland Report in which close and frequent coordination and collaboration should be engaged in frequently or always. Results are in percentages of those who felt able to comment.

Respondents reported that coordination and collaboration occurred…

1. Between heads of relevant government departments

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

2. In information sharing on child protection matters

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

3. Between government, NGOs and training organisations on workforce planning

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

4. Between organisations supporting children after sexual abuse

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

5. Between DCP management and field staff

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

6. Between foster carers and DCP workers

nevernot normalsometimesfrequentlyalwaysn

Filtering the results by respondent produces additional insight into the way different parties have experienced the frequency of coordination and collaboration as in the relationship between foster carers and DCP workers .

More analysis

As indicated in the example above, there is more insight into the relationships we surveyed waiting to be revealed by filtering the responses by by respondent.  Watch out over the next few weeks as we progressively do that and start analysing the content of the 147 comments, many of them quite detailed.

Download the Coordination and Collaboration Survey June 2017 – unfiltered results

1 The survey was open from 13 June to 27 June, 2017 and received 384 responses and 147 comments. It is part of an ongoing series in which the Guardian’s Office observes and comments on progress in areas identified in Commissioner Nyland’s report.  It should be borne in mind that the survey sample was relatively small and respondents self-selected. The results are broadly indicative and should not be relied on for more fine-grained analysis.


Australia’s OPCAT ratification signals a shakeup in SA’s youth detention oversight

26 June 2017

The oversight of the South Australia’s Youth Training Centre will be energised by the Australian Government’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

This coincides with work in South Australia on Youth Justice Administration Act 2016 initiatives such as the Training Centre Visitor program.

Recent revelations of the abuse of young people in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and the treatment of other young people in detention centres across Australia, are likely to have been a catalyst for the Government’s decision to ratify.  Last year Australian citizens were shocked to view footage showing young men being tear-gassed, spit-hooded and shackled in the Northern Territory’s youth detention system. This triggered the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory and Commonwealth Attorney General George Brandis suggested the scandal may not have occurred if better oversight bodies had been in place.[1] 

Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, said;

“When a person is detained in prison, a mental health facility, anywhere, they remain human…Protecting their basic dignity is just as important as it was before their detention.”[2] 

In 2009, Australia became a signatory of OPCAT, the aim of which is to prevent mistreatment and promote humane conditions in detention by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection.

But ratification is a much greater commitment.

Ratification will make the treaty binding on Australia, and will apply to all places of detention including prisons, police cells, juvenile and immigration detention and secure mental health and disability facilities.

Australian Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell said, ‘We must ensure that we foster a culture of care in our youth justice systems, that is grounded in respect for human rights and the best interests of children and young people.’

Implementing OPCAT will require Australian governments to permit visits from the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to any place of detention within Australia.  It will mandate the establishment of an independent National Preventative Mechanism and identify suitable independent inspecting bodies to conduct inspections of all places of detention.

Ratification will include a requirement in law to undertake regular preventive visits to specified places of detention.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman in collaboration with the states, territories and other relevant parties, will be in charge of coordinating inspections and oversight in Australia.

South Australia has already made a start in looking at protections for young people in youth detention with the passage of the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016 in and the adoption of the Youth Justice Administration Regulations 2016.  Among other things, the Act provides for additional sentencing options for young offenders, a charter of rights for young people in youth justice detention and directs the establishment of an official Training Centre Visitor scheme.

Taking on the role of Training Centre Visitor, Guardian Amanda Shaw says that the Guardian’s Office will be very involved with the OPCAT process in this state.

‘The Office is looking forward to working with the State and Commonwealth Governments over the next few months to ensure that the full range of OPCAT protections are extended to young South Australians,’ she said.

For a detailed look at OPCAT in Australia read the recently released discussion paper published by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[1] Oversight may Have prevented Don Dale: AG, SBS 9 February 2017

[2] OPCAT:Australia makes long-awaited pledge to ratify international torture treaty, Alexandra Beech, ABC 9 February 2017

Strengthening the voice of young people in state care

Amanda Shaw Guardian

20 June 2017


I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Legislative Council Select Committee on Statutory Child Protection and Care specifically about the Children and Young People (Safety) Bill 2017, following my two written submissions in January and February.

All three submissions were about  the children and young people whose interests I represent – the almost 3,400 in state care and those detained in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre.

I would like to share some of the things I said to the Select Committee:

‘Underpinning what we do is the drive to make transparent what is happening for children and young people in state care and to strengthen their voice and capacity to influence what happens in their lives.  It is a commitment to the fundamental rights of children and young people.

‘The concepts of safety, best interests and wellbeing of children and young people are not mutually exclusive. It is in a child’s best interests to protect them from harm, protect their rights and promote their development in age, stage and culturally appropriate ways.

‘When children are at risk of harm, or indeed harmed, there must be action to protect and heal. What this looks like should depend on an individual child’s needs in those specific circumstances.  Some will need services and supports to maintain them safely within their home and with their parent/s.  And it will be in their best interests, and promote their wellbeing, to do so. Sadly, some will need intervention to place them in an alternative environment in order to secure their safety and wellbeing. And it will be in their best interests to do so. We’ve heard that directly from children in care.

‘Legislative reform, including the current Safety Bill, is only a part of the significant change needed to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in South Australia. It does contribute incremental improvements in this overall context and substantial innovations in specific areas (for example the proposed community visitor scheme for children and young people in residential and emergency care).  But, legislation alone will not revolutionise the system that children and young people currently live within.’

‘We all have to look at other crucial factors, especially policy reform and organisational culture.

‘In our advocacy and monitoring work we often see a significant disconnection between policy and implementation.

‘The transformation of our child protection and out of home care requires cooperation and collaboration within government, between government and non-government organisations, with academia and the community … and we all must listen respectfully to those most directly affected – the children and young people who live this.’

This article first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter in May 2017.

Setting the record straight

6 June 2017

Record keeping can be seen as just another chore, the domain of archivists concerned with keywords and disposal schedules or a tedious administrative task for overworked caseworkers.

But for people who have spent a significant portion of their life in the care of institutions, official records can assume a huge significance as they try to craft a personal history and an identity from fragmented memories.

Children who grew up with their families might ask a family member ‘how did you wrap me as a baby’,  ‘why did you pick that school for us’, ‘how old was I when I got my first tooth’ or ‘can we look at my kindy book?’  They might trawl shoeboxes of old photos or swipe through an iPhone to look at pictures.  They might see certificates of their achievements displayed on the walls of their home alongside pictures of special holidays or treasured relatives.  They might uncover birth certificates in bottom drawers or in the backs of filing cabinets alongside old x-rays and school reports.

For children who have been in care with little access to these kinds of resources, formal records can hold large parts of the story of their lives, sometimes the only way to fill in key pieces of the puzzle.

But organisations are not always good at keeping records.

Record keeping has been historically biased towards text, such as case plans, file notes and reports. We often ignored the rich life-information that waited to be interrogated in the photographs, documents and memorabilia that also surrounded a child.

Record keeping is not always sensitively done, either, allowing that records may later be read by the very people who were once their subject. Children and young people are seldom asked to contribute to their own records.

Record keeping historically has been mostly concerned with the needs of the organisation, to record what was needed to conduct the business, rather than considering the future needs of the child.

And records are not always complete. Important conversations are not noted and the reasons for life-changing decisions are sometimes scantily recorded or not recorded at all.

Even when records have been made, the documents have not always been treated with a level of care consistent with their future value to children.  Many older records have been misplaced or damaged in fire or floods.  A presenter at the recent Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child national summit observed cynically that one particular organisation seemed especially prone to flooding.

Where records are made and survive, we are not always good at providing access to them to people who have been in care.  Although the right to access their records is now guaranteed in jurisdictions across Australia, people who have tried to access them have not always found it easy. There can be considerable work involved in preparing and presenting records, and some organisations have tried to avoid that work by refusing or delaying requests for access.

Where records are provided, they are frequently redacted, that is, sections are blacked out with the intention of protecting the privacy of third parties. While protecting third parties is laudable, redaction has been inconsistent, sometimes being light and at other times removing so much of a record that it conveys very little of use.

But simply handing over records to a former client does not end an organisation’s responsibility. Presentation of records should be done in a way that assists the recipient to deal with their contents practically and emotionally.  Records frequently need to be interpreted.  Helping a person to understand the context for a record can be all-important to them constructing a cohesive story around the events that are recorded. Records will frequently trigger emotions or reawaken trauma and having skilled staff on hand to help is also the responsibility of the record keeper.

‘…knowing who you are and your history’ is one of the rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care.  It is based on the understanding that a respectful, comprehensive and vibrant archive of a child’s history can be central to developing a strong identity with lifelong benefits to happiness and wellbeing.

Much more than a dull chore.

The Guardian’s publication ‘Child sensitive record keeping’ is a useful download if you or your organisation is considering how well you manage records.

This article first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter in May 2017.